School lunch programs have been around for a very long time. As early as the 1890s, there were food service programs in the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service website, www.fns.usda.gov, explains that school lunch programs began with “sporadic food services undertaken by private societies and associations interested in child welfare and education.”
The programs continued to evolve and change with the economic times. In 1946, the 79th Congress introduced and approved legislation that was known as the National School Lunch Act. “The national school lunch bill provides basic, comprehensive legislation for aid, in general, to the States in the operation of school lunch programs as permanent and integral parts of their school systems. … The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed.”
Over the years, updates have been made to the National School Lunch Act with the most recent one being championed by First Lady Michelle Obama – the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service website noted, “This rule requires most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements. These improvements to the school meal programs, largely based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children and help mitigate the childhood obesity trend.”
Schools have been working on implementing new menus to coincide with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act standards. Spring Grove Public School has made these changes that includes making sure all products that have grains in them, such as breads, buns, noodles, pizza crust and breadings on chicken nuggets and fish sticks are at least 53 percent whole grains.
“This (finding food items with whole grains) was a little confusing for me at first, but all of our distributors have been very helpful because every school is going through this change,” commented Janet Sand, Spring Grove’s head cook. “Kids also need to have at least one-half cup fruits or vegetables on their trays every day, but with the many offerings in our salad bar, that helps a lot to meet this goal.”
The students have noticed the change and the reactions have been mixed.
“The kids’ reactions haven’t been bad,” added Sand. “They maybe didn’t care for all the whole grain products right away, but they have adjusted quite fine. Our spaghetti and goulash noodles are whole grain and they seem to be eating it well with little or no refuse.”
Sand also needs to watch the calorie counts for the meals. Kindergarten through fifth grade can have 350-500 calories for lunch, sixth through eighth grade can have 400-550 calories for lunch, and ninth through 12th grade can have 450-600 calories per lunch meal.
“One of the biggest adjustments for the kids, maybe, is that we used to serve a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. I can only serve so many ounces of grain per day so, depending on the meal, I can’t serve the extra bread in the sandwiches,” Sand added.
There is also a vending machine in the school that sells snacks. This, too, is regulated as to what types of food may be available in it.
“The rules state that snacks in the vending machine can have only so many calories and the first word in the ingredients has to be whole grain or fruit,” explained Sand.
To aid her in finding healthy foods for the vending machine, Sand uses an online Smart Snacks Product Calculator provided by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The calculator asks for different details of the snack including calories, number of trans fats, number of saturated fats, amount of sugar and other items and then determines if the snack is healthy.
The calculator can be accessed by the general public as well at http://rdp.healthiergeneration.org/calc/calculator.
These healthy changes in breakfast and lunch menus, along with the vending machine choices and posters throughout the cafeteria giving tips on how to make a healthy plate of food and how to choose snacks wisely, align with the school’s wellness policy, which in part states, “The school board recognizes that nutrition education and physical education are essential components of the educational process and that good health fosters student attendance and education. The school environment should promote and protect students’ health, well-being, and ability to learn by encouraging healthy eating and physical activity.”
In a press release, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, in regards to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, “Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids. When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future.”